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The team — Mary Kagendo Kobia helps international researchers and their partners get settled in Copenhagen. This is far from easy. It is easy, however, for Mary to make a perfect Peri-Peri sauce with seven different chillies — a skill that put her on the Danish TV version of Masterchef.
I came to Denmark as an eight-year-old due to having a Danish stepfather in the development sector. He worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was stationed in Kenya, where he fell in love with my biological mother. When his contract expired, they had to find out whether they wanted to stay in Kenya or go to Denmark. They chose the latter. I have always been concerned with the ideal of helping others and trying to make a difference. It is deeply rooted within me. Maybe it’s because of my upbringing on a coffee plantation on the slopes of Mount Kenya with limited financial means. When I came to Denmark, it only took me three months to learn Danish with the help of my stepfather. He loved doing homework with me. When someone supports you, everything is a little easier.
I am an international education graduate from Copenhagen Business School (CBS) and Roskilde University (RUC) and I knew that when I graduated, I wanted to save the world. In my first job, I was stationed in Zimbabwe to do lobbying and communication work for an NGO. I shared this experience with my husband and our daughter Naja, who was barely two years old at the time. It was really exciting to work with humanitarian projects and complex development issues in the country, which under Robert Mugabe had the world’s highest inflation. At its peak, my colleagues were badly affected by it. When they went to work in the morning, they could afford the bus ticket. When they went home, the price had almost doubled. Trade embargoes also made it difficult to get groceries, so in addition to caring for our daughter, my husband spent much of his time getting food and other necessities, queuing for hours for butter, eggs, milk and gasoline. Here it dawned on me how complex that development work can be in countries with political oppression, polarisation and human rights violations.
When I found out that I couldn’t save the world, I decided to seek out other career challenges with my communication and marketing background. I got a job in the oil and gas industry where they needed a communications and marketing consultant to convey ‘sexy stories’ about their complex piping systems for the offshore and energy sectors. I was really good at it and had stories published in various oil and gas magazines, but I soon felt that even though I can write about technical products, my real passion was in working with people, HR and talent development. So I switched career path again.
If students and researchers are to shine at the University of Copenhagen, they need a good support system. We know them as technical and administrative staff, and we at the University Post want to celebrate them with this series.
When you hire an international member of staff, it’s not just this person that needs help settling in Denmark, but also their partner. Data shows that if the accompanying spouse of an international employee does not thrive, there is a probability that the couple will end up leaving. Then UCPH will lose an employee, and it may have been an expensive recruitment process. That is why it is crucial that both spouses succeed in their integration. One important piece of this puzzle is that the spouse settles in and can pursue their own career path. There are approximately 5,000 researchers at UCPH, including 3,000 international appointments. Up to 40 percent of them bring their spouses with them. They often have children, and many of them are highly educated. And when the researcher is busy, perhaps pursuing a Nobel Prize, his or her spouse should thrive too. Here we can help with practicalities and give advice on job hunting in Denmark.
When they come to Denmark, many of our international researchers and their spouses are overwhelmed — by how small this country is, and many of them perceive Danes as cold. I always tell them that we are actually more reserved rather than cold. When they get to know us, it’s something else entirely. There are several things that are challenging when foreigners come to Denmark: The language, integration and networks, housing and schools, family and culture. Since 2013, UCPH has had Dual Career Services, and it is through this that we provide accompanying spouses with career guidance, help with job search and networking, CV optimization and much more. There is a rather peculiar labour market culture in Denmark, where you are hired based on development potential and personality, and not on skills alone. This comes as a surprise to many.
I’m very nerdy about languages. I used to be able to speak many languages, now I stick to English and Danish and a bit of tourist Swahili. I thought I was going to be a translator when I originally opted to study English and French at CBS. But then I found out that technical language and translation were not for me at all. I wasn’t really interested in knowing what the edge of a gutter is called in French, and I’m still blissfully unaware of it now. There were many who were a lot more talented than me there, and who were more passionate about language and translation. And so I decided to finish my bachelor’s at CBS in business language, English, French and marketing and do my master’s at Roskilde University instead.
Mary is 47 years old and has worked for nine years as a Senior Global Mobility Consultant in International Staff Mobility, a section under the University of Copenhagen’s HR which takes care of international researcher mobility at UCPH. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication and marketing from CBS and a social science master’s in international development studies and communication from Roskilde University. She has also taken a coaching education programme. She has worked for Action-AID, NKT Flexibles, the Akademikernes trade union, and as a coach with talent development.
My neighbour signed me up for Masterchef without me knowing. I love to cook. My neighbour discovered this many years ago, and she had contacted the programme, who called me one day and asked if I wanted to take part. I was in an episode or two before I dropped out. Some of the things we had to do didn’t make sense to me. Who on earth makes a Baked Alaska (baked ice cream) on a normal day? Who would say, now I’m going to cook some delicious food for my family, so I’ll just nip in to Netto for some liquid nitrogen and white truffle? Come on. And why does cooking have to be this rushing and jumping around in the kitchen? I don’t like cooking this way, but it was fun to be involved even though the format didn’t match my temperament.
My husband and I love sailing from the West of Zealand in our sailboat. I have sailed a lot in Denmark, and if I had to point to a few favourite places, it would have to be Bornholm or Nekselø, an island in Sejerø Bay. It is so beautiful. We have a Laurin 32, a sailboat just under ten metres length. I don’t have any sailing certifications, but I think I’m a world-class ‘right wing’. It is amazing when you come to a new harbour and experience the courteousness and culture in these settings. People help each other. I was cooking once on the island of Sejerø, and it smelled so strongly that our neighbours asked what I was up to, since it smelled so good. It’s just a little meat sauce, I replied, but they said their meat sauce didn’t smell like that. So we swapped and we got some delicious wine in return.
Now my kids have grown up, I needed a new hobby. I started spinning classes [indoor cycling, ed.] last year and I now do it three to four times a week. It’s great to get your heart rate up, and I think it’s healthy for a typing and talking person like me. When I spin, I can’t type. Or talk.
As the technical and administrative staff group at UCPH, we support and contribute to excellent research. At ISM, we help countless international researchers and their families with all sorts of practical questions. I’ve been here for nine years and I’m still mesmerized by this place. UCPH is so big, complex and historical. If there’s one place that isn’t standing still, it’s the University of Copenhagen. And I think that’s why I’ve been here for nine years. No two days are alike. In this job, I think I have found a good combination of my passion and what I am good at. The great thing about my job is that I can do so much at a micro level. When we talk about saving the world, we go to the macro level, and then you tend to lose your breath. There are many things happening in the world over which we have no control. Here I actually feel that I have the opportunity to make a difference. Not just every now and then, because my colleagues and I make a real difference for people every single day.